Profile: Baristocracy Coffee – A cup of coffee culture

Alex Forsyth and Kate Hudson of Baristocracy Coffee are bringing a taste of Aussie coffee culture to the North East one cup at a time. Dean Bailey drops by for a brew

Love stories come in all shapes and sizes, and Kate Hudson and Alex Forsyth’s combines a shared passion for speciality coffee and owning their own business.

North East-born Kate was travelling in Australia when they met. The son of an internationally renowned Sydney roastery owner and World Barista Championship judge, you could say the stuff ran, metaphorically speaking, in Alex’s veins.

They met in Brisbane, where Alex was working at the time, fell in love, went back to Sydney to work for Alex’s parents, and the rest, as they say, is history. But how did they end up with a roastery in North Shields? The decision came down to a choice of markets – a saturated one in Sydney or a fledging one on the other side of the world. “We went to Tynemouth Market while visiting Kate’s family in 2016 and it was transformed from what I’d seen on previous visits,” says Alex. “The mix of food and artisan producers got us thinking. The success of speciality roasteries like Ouseburn, Tynemouth, and Pink Lane, on the shoulders of older businesses like Pumphreys and Ringtons showed us that coffee drinkers here were looking for quality.”

Inspired, they arrived in the UK on Valentine’s Day 2017, founded their business within a fortnight and by June had the keys to their roastery. Quick work (presumably fuelled by coffee…) followed and now, five years on, it’s still thrilling, says Kate, to see people drinking their coffee.

They’ve grown the business organically, starting small, sharing their love of carefully sourced and curated beans with customers. They’ve grown to incorporate training courses for professional baristas, workshops and cupping sessions for coffee lovers.

They’re also raising two children, Cooper, seven, and Tessa, four, who are growing up spending lots of time at the roastery, just as Alex did at his parents’ place. “It’s an evolving space,” says Kate of their base, pointing out furniture which used to be in their house in Australia and areas which Cooper and Tessa made their own during their pre-school years.

The roaster, 7ft of gleaming metalwork, commands attention for its looks and glorious aromas. The shelves fitted by Alex and his dad display coffee beans and paraphenalia, while the sofas are reserved for coffee, admin work and Warcraft when Cooper is here. Sacks of green beans sit alongside Alex’s bike – soon to be replaced with an electric one for local deliveries – while an eclectic mix of stools and chairs congregate around the bar and tables for coffee drinking, cupping and chatting.

Alex selects each coffee around his personal tastes – “the joy of owning your own roastery,” he says. In search of what I learn are described as a creamier mouthfeel and elements of citrus fruit flavour, he recommends a Papua New Guinea-grown bean, beautifully illustrated on the tasting notes and bags by his sister Juliet. 

While helping people choose coffee comes naturally, as does distilling the specialist vocabulary to novice level for me, when pressed on his own preferences it’s difficult for Alex to put a finger on a single bean or flavour profile. “We’re not just for coffee nerds though, we’ll talk in detail to anyone who’ll listen,” says Kate. “We’re here to serve people, teach them as much as they want to know and guide them in choosing a drink they’re going to enjoy.”

Their passion for coffee is informed by Alex’s upbringing. “My dad hosted baristas from around the world and they were phenomenally talented,” he says. “Some were world champions, and they brought a passion for coffee that was really inspiring. They were dedicated to every cup while delivering them at speed, and that showed me how close great baristas are to engineers. That combination of precision and individual style inspired me to move into a career in coffee.”

Having competed in and judged international barista competitions, Alex dreams of seeing the North East recognised as a major player in coffee. “The growth of independent food has also been phenomenal here,” he says. “Places like the Grainger Market, the Fish Quay and Park View in Whitley Bay have changed so much just in the time we’ve lived here. These places use as much good, local produce as possible and they inspire people to invest in quality food and drink. For me, coffee is about community. I’d like to see more people spending time together around really good coffee the way we did in Australia.”

With speciality coffee can come an elitism Alex and Kate aren’t at home to. “There’s an element within coffee which can try very hard to be too cool for school, and we’re definitely not going down that route,” says Kate. Sharing their knowledge is important at this premium end of the market, and they explain how ethical and sustainable practices, including using reusable barrels and compostable retail bags, and paying good wages to trained baristas, underpin a product worth spending your money on.

“We also want to be part of developing a group of passionate, highly skilled baristas to deliver our product at its best,” says Alex. “Training and keeping good people in the industry is important and I hope to see baristas being paid properly and respected here, as they are in Australia.”

The training courses here are aimed at professionals or home baristas, while Alex’s cupping sessions spread the word about speciality coffee. “We’d love to partner up with some more speciality places in the future,” says Alex. “That would allow us to offer cuppings or courses where people can explore what they want from their coffee, learn a common vocabulary, and grow the community around us and other roasteries.”

Alex and Kate are also steadfast in keeping Baristocracy as ethical as possible. “We’ve always wanted to do business in a way we think is right, from paying a fair price to the co-operatives and growers for green beans to ensuring we minimise our carbon footprint,” explains Kate. “It’s difficult to keep on top of, and it’s becoming more difficult as Brexit kicks in and importing becomes more expensive.”

But there is an international spotlight on the ethical sourcing of coffee, and ensuring fairness throughout the supply chain is an essential part of the business. “Exploitation is happening all over the world, especially in bulk production when margins are being squeezed, but we’re always striving to do things right by everyone throughout the whole process,” says Alex. “That’s how I was brought up in the coffee industry and it’s never been a choice for us.”

Their greatest test to date has been the pandemic. Fortunately, the growth of their online business kept things afloat and they’re now roasting 120kg-180kg of coffee every week – three times more than their average when they started out in 2017. They’re also supplying some of the North East’s best cafés, restaurants and independent shops, and delivering coffee direct to homes locally and nationwide.

They also have ambitions to do more in the years ahead. “We loved the coffee culture in Sydney,” says Kate. “Families or friends go out for brunch or coffee and cake there and it’s an experience. The culture is changing and growing here, and we hope that continues. Having worked with refugees and taught English as a second language, I’d also like to combine our work with my passion for educating people with barriers to employment. Teaching people skills that can help them find work and forge their own careers would be really rewarding.”

As the market for UK-roasted speciality coffee continues to grow, the future looks bright for this North Shields roastery, and those of us who enjoy the beans it brings to our shores. Now then, time to put the kettle on…

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